Like a lot of people, I enjoy shopping on the Internet. Practically anything you want is available, with just a click of the mouse. You order, wait a few days, and voila — it arrives in your mailbox. No hassle with going to the store, fighting the crowds, and hauling whatever it is back home. Be it books, clothes, electronic gadgets — you name it, and it is out there. Over a 100 years ago, this type of shopping was available as well, and was especially popular in rural areas.
I am talking about the Sears catalog, of course. Skyhorse Publishing has recently issued the mighty Sears, Roebuck & Co: The Best Of 1905 – 1910 Collectibles, and it is an antiquer’s dream. Literally everything a person could want was available through Sears back then. The massive catalog is about the size of a telephone book, with 720 pages, and over 15,000 illustrations. My guess is that there are upwards of 50,000 entries in total.
The meticulously drawn representations of old-time cameras, watches, rifles, musical instruments, and more are a thing of beauty in themselves. Nobody puts this type of effort into a mere catalog anymore.
But this is so much more than a simple collection of products. Sure, it is fun to look at what these items were priced at one hundred years ago. But there is an even more intriguing element to the book. It is a slice of America that is so far removed from our present day existence, that it is hard to even imagine.
There are actually entries for full-sized “Cathedral Chapel Organs” ($56.75) for your local church. And if you needed a brand new, state-of-the art kitchen stove or range, they had them too. Just imagine what it took to ship one of these massive things all the way from Chicago to your little house somewhere in the Ozarks, for example.
I guess I have always enjoyed nostalgia. Stumbling across a long forgotten toy in my parent’s attic, or even browsing the used vinyl at a record store is a lot of fun for me. But this is an entirely new world. A look through this catalog reveals much more than just brilliant marketing. In it, we are actually able to reach out and touch a very distant past. I find it hard to describe just how enjoyable it is to simply browse through this book. It is not hard to imagine my great-grandfather looking at these very same ads, once upon a time. No doubt he would have done it by the light of an oil or kerosene lamp though.
Say what you will about the Internet. There are a great number of developments that came with it which I certainly could have lived without. But looking through this Sears, Roebuck catalog does put it all in a nice perspective for me. Jeff Bezos at Amazon was one of the very first to see the ‘Net as an extension of what Sears did so long ago.
There is a type of person that the Sears, Roebuck & Co: The Best Of 1905 – 1910 Collectibles will appeal to, and they are probably not shopping the bestseller lists. But if one is curious about who we thought we were at the turn of the twentieth century, it is a wonderful place to start. I think you will be surprised at how much a seemingly ephemeral artifact like this has to say about us, even today. The Sears, Roebuck & Co: The Best Of 1905 – 1910 Collectibles catalog is a most enjoyable look back in time.